The Courier

The Cardigans are the obvious frame of reference for this Swedish outfit's blend of indie and lounge pop. The guitar-driven Courier also has some of the charm of the Sundays and Altered Images, though without the former's amused resignation or the latter's occasional sense of utter hopelessness. Ringing guitars, strings, horns, and offbeat keyboard flourishes fill the otherwise spare spaces around Frida Diesen's vocals. Her delivery veers from the pretty pensiveness of "Me As Helen of Troy" to the girlish eagerness and nonsense syllables of "Missing Persons File." Diesen seems incapable of going deep, even when delivering vaguely threatening promises to "wash you clean out of my mind."

The sonically denser "I Wanted It, but Now I'm Not So Sure" manages little more than exhortation ("reach the sky ... look up and get alive") while the details of a friend's apparent death in "The Promenade" seem to make as much impression on Diesen as a run in her stockings. If you're one of those people who got sick of hearing "Lovefool" on the radio two months ago, steer clear of Cinnamon: The band is likely to register as little more than clouds in your coffee. At the same time, partner Jiri Novak's inviting combination of (polite) noise and Bacharach-esque touches make the record hard to hate.

-- Rickey Wright

End of the Summer
Dar Williams
(Razor & Tie)

Here's a disc with a major case of split personality. Half of this set consists of up-tempo rock with character and charm. The other half is made up of listless, cliched ballads. For Williams, End of the Summer marks an attempt to step up from college radio airplay and Internet fan clubs to a wider audience. Two previous releases were critically well received and made enough splash to land her a couple of dates on this summer's ballyhooed Lilith Tour (featuring Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, et cetera).

The future looks bright for Dar Williams, in other words, and she's certainly done nothing to ruin her chances with this release. No one track stands out as a commercial breakthrough, but there's enough pleasing stuff here to keep drawing new listeners.

As a vocalist, Williams does better with the power punch than with her occasional attempts at finesse; the spare instrumentation, leisurely guitar chords, and distinctive lyrics of "Party Generation" are perfectly tailored to her strengths. The instrumentation has backbone, the harmonies are catchy, and both support a strong vocal line. Williams lays her words down the way Raymond Carver did his fiction: plainly, honestly, and with a conversational quality that manages to find its own rhythm: "When he turned 34, but who's counting/He couldn't find anyone who wanted to party/So he walked around a playground with a bag of Mickey's tallboys/And he heard the sound of laughter/And he followed it for fifteen blocks."

Strangely enough (and I swear I mean this strictly as a compliment), the best tracks on Summer call to mind idiosyncratic Paul Simon songs like "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" and "You Can Call Me Al." They have the same playful wit and lively musical texture.

When Williams slows the tempo, however, the results are shallow Gen X folktunes, musically unadventurous and lyrically immature -- the kind of thing you'd expect from an overly sincere coed scribbling on a napkin in some coffee shop: "The summer ends and we wonder where we are/And there you go my friends, with your boxes in the car." Heavy. Very heavy.

Keep the remote handy to zap past the weaker material, but make sure not to miss the sterling cover of the Kinks' "Better Things." This toe-tapping rendition is a testament to Ray Davies' knack for melody, a talent especially apparent when someone else is singing his songs.

-- Keith Morris

Malcolm Arnold
Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4

Now in his late seventies and in ill health, English musician Malcolm Arnold is approaching the end of a long career, first as a trumpeter, later as a composer of everything from film scores (Bridge on the River Kwai) to ambitious works for the concert hall. His senses of both humor and pleasure are well-developed, and he's not afraid to entertain, nor to write tunes that would be more at home in an English music hall than on a concert stage. At times he's even vulgar, much to the displeasure of the musical establishment. There are moments, though, in which Arnold appears more subdued. Indeed, as a composer he can swoop from high spirits to disappointment, cynicism, and despair in the wave of a baton. In a century characterized by manic-depressive classical music, Arnold's contribution is a prominent one.

His nine symphonies are typical of his work. With this CD, conductor Vernon Handley has now recorded all nine. Although these are not his most popular symphonies, this is a good place to begin exploring Arnold's music. The Third Symphony is quirky; just when one mood has been established, Arnold changes it, keeping the listener vaguely unsettled.

The Fourth is even stranger. Written during a period of racial unrest in London, it's constructed largely from a deliberately cheesy tune and uses instruments not commonly found in a classical symphony orchestra, including bongos and a marimba. The symphony seems set to end in a violent flourish, until Arnold tacks on an ironically happy ending.

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